The stillness lingers at Appomattox
By Bill Ward
Special to the Salisbury Post
Appomattox is a name that evokes different images to different people. A rare few may have no idea as to its significance. But to history buffs, Appomattox represents the sharp turn in the American “Civil War” that brought the bloody carnage to its end.
In the early morning hours of April 9, 1865, an exchange of dispatches initiated by Union Gen. U.S. Grant to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee saw the turning point begin. Grant, knowing the damage that his Federal forces were inflicting on Confederate forces, implored Lee to consider surrender “To avoid a further effusion of blood.” After several exchanges between the Generals, Lee told his staff that “I would rather do anything than to meet with Grant.” But Lee knew that meet and surrender he must. His forces were all but boxed in, cut off from supplies, and forced to move so fast they could not tend their wounded or bury their dead.
My wife, Celeste, and I recently enjoyed a visit to the village where on the afternoon of April 9, 1865 ó Palm Sunday ó Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee’s surrender started a domino-like effect for other Confederate armies to surrender down through the Southern states.
Originally known as Clover Hill Village, the name of this small rural farming community was later changed to the village of Appomattox Court House. That name denoted the village’s position as the county seat and the location of the court house, which later was destroyed by fire. In the antebellum period, Appomattox Court House was the only village in Appomattox County.
The entire village is now reconstructed and overseen by the National Park Service. The recreated courthouse is now the visitor’s center where we watched a DVD depicting the town and the surrender. Clover Hill Tavern ó no spirits from the past or present are served ó is the building where visitors are sent to relax on the front porch to listen to a docent give a first-person view of Appomattox as it was in 1865. The docents impersonate either Confederate or Yankee enlisted men in uniform with exceptional knowledge of events of “their day.” Our docent-guide was a young Confederate soldier, Thomas Tibbs (impersonated by Chris Bingham) who talked about 40 minutes explaining the action that took place around Appomattox leading up to the surrender.
Appomattox Court House could just as easily be known as the village of fences. The flat-slab and picket-like fences that run throughout the rolling country side are reminiscent of those rambling fences seen at large Kentucky horse farms. Sections of split-rail fence line the roadway away from the main village. Each property is clearly marked by a fence.
But if the village of Appomattox Court House is a historic feast set to tantalize the historian in many of us, certainly the Wilmer McLean home is the centerpiece on the table. The McLean home was the site of the surrender negotiation and surrender-document signing.
Inside, the restored “surrender room” looks much as it must have on that April afternoon as General Lee and General Grant sat at their respective tables and completed their somber work.
The meeting ended at 4 in the afternoon when Lee and Grant stood and shook hands. Bowing slightly from the waist to the other officers, Lee turned and walked from the room and out onto the porch with Colonel Marshall. The Federal officers followed, gathering behind them on the porch as Lee called for Sergeant Tucker to bring up his horse.
Battle-weary and feeling the burden of defeat, the Confederate general walked down to stand on the lowest step. Gazing sadly into the distance while his animal was being bridled, he knew that out in the valley that lay beyond, he now commanded only an army of prisoners. Oblivious to those present, he swung his arms out in short, pendulumlike strokes, cuffing his hands together a few times. He hardly seemed to notice the group of Union officers in the yard who now rose respectfully in his presence. Lee had met a supreme test and endured the moment with the greatest dignity, and those observing the scene appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed the popular general. Without regard for the color of their uniforms, he had the personal sympathy of every officer present.
As Lee drew himself from the other world to which he had momentarily escaped, he grew impatient and walked over to stand beside Traveler while Tucker replaced the bit in the horse’s mouth. When Lee mounted, General Grant stepped down from the porch and, moving quickly across the yard toward Lee, raised his hat in salute to his former opponent. The Federal officers followed Grant’s gesture of courtesy, which Lee returned by raising his hat respectfully. Then the defeated general rode off to break the sad news to his proud and brave troops.
General Grant mounted up shortly afterward and rode away with a few members of his staff. The surrender had taken place without fanfare, parades or unusual ceremony. Later, hearing Union artillery firing in the distance to celebrate the surrender, Grant ordered all guns silenced. He felt empathy for the Confederates and knew the news of the surrender would be hard enough. Goading them with the sounds of a celebration was unnecessary. He also felt concern that artillery fire could be mistaken for an attack and rekindle the fighting.
In his Civil War Trilogy, Shelby Foote relates that inside the McLean house, the situation was not treated in quite the same gentlemanly manner as the surrender. The members of Grant’s staff who had remained behind and a few of his generals had become no better than scavengers. As soon as Lee and Grant rode away, the Union officers who had been inside returned to the living room and began plundering the McLean’s personal belongings as souvenirs. Others who had waited outside now stormed into the house to seize what they could.
General Sheridan grabbed up the table Lee had used, and General Ord laid claim to the marble-top table used by Grant. Sheridan offered Wilmer McLean $40 for his booty, and Ord offered $20 for his. But McLean did not want to sell his furnishings, and when he refused their bids, the Union officers flung the money at his feet, taking the pieces anyway. Michail Sheridan, the general’s brother and a captain on his staff, helped himself to a stone inkstand. A brigadier general grabbed two brass candlesticks, leaving $10 in their place.
Union scavengers snatched up much of the other furniture, including the chairs where the two commanders had sat. After the higher ranking officers left with the choice selections, the place took on an atmosphere reminiscent of a drunken brawl. A reporter who was present wrote: “Cane bottom chairs were ruthlessly cut to pieces; the cane splits broken into pieces a few inches long and parceled out among those who swarmed around. Hair cloth upholstery, cut from chairs and sofas, was also cut into strips and patches and carried away.”
This was only the beginning. In the not-too-distant future, many of the same conquerors would enjoy advancement to greater rank and position or power and prestige. Working closely with those at the top of the government hierarchy and its bureaucracies, the scene at the McLean home would be only a preview of things to come in later years. Some of the blue-clad victors would achieve considerable success in treating the rest of the defeated South in the same shabby manner they had returned the McLeans’ gracious hospitality.
In similar fashion, hard times eventually fell on Wilmer McLean. In the fall of 1867, the family moved to Mrs. McLean’s estate in Prince William County, Virginia. McLean defaulted on repayment of loans, and the banking house of Harrison, Goddin, and Apperson of Richmond brought a judgment against him. The “Surrender House” was sold at public auction on Nov. 29, 1869. John Pascoe bought the house and rented it to the Ragland family, formerly of Richmond. In 1872, Nathaniel Ragland purchased the property for $1,250.00. Later the house was disassembled and the parts left in piles on the property, where scavengers stole pieces for souvenirs. The National Park Service later built the reconstructed model which now is open for tourists.